February 5, 2023

Philadelphia police identified the “Boy in the Box” Thursday — 66 years after the 4-year-old child was found dead inside a container in the woods.

Police announced they had determined Joseph August Zarelli was the identity of the body was found naked and badly bruised on Feb. 25, 1957 in a wooded portion of Philadelphia’s Fox Chase neighborhood.

The 4-year-old had been wrapped in a blanket and placed inside a large JCPenney bassinet box. He was severely malnourished and had been beaten to death, police said.

“When people think about the boy in the box, a profound sadness is felt, not just because a child was murdered, but because his entire identity and his rightful claim to own his existence was taken away,” Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said.

“This announcement only closes one chapter in this little boy’s story while opening up a new one. This is still an active homicide investigation and we still need the public’s help in filling in this child’s life story.”

The case had been Philadelphia’s oldest unsolved homicide, according to Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw.

Joseph Zarelli’s remains lie at Ivy Hill Cemetery.

Authorities said that while they hope to publicize Joseph’s name would open the door to new leads in the case, they also cautioned that since so much time had passed, it may be difficult to bring Joseph justice.

“It’s going to be an uphill battle for us to definitively determine who caused this child’s death,” said Captain Jason Smith, the commanding officer of the city’s homicide unit.

“We may not make an arrest. We may never make an identification. But we’re going to do our darnedest to try.”

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This artist rendition released by the Philadelphia Police Department shows Joseph Augustus Zarelli.
Joseph Zarelli was found dead inside a container in the woods.
Philadelphia Police Department/AFP

Smith also said that police have their suspicions as to who may have killed the child, but could not share them while the investigation is still active.

“If this technology had been available to us 20 years ago, it might be a completely different story — because once you identify who the child is, you start (interviewing) family members. Well at this point of time, a lot of the family members who would have been old enough to have a memory of any incident that might have occurred are normally long gone,” Smith said.

Police said that both of Joseph’s parents have died, but that he has siblings who are still alive. The family had lived in west Philadelphia, according to officials. Police have not shared the deceased parents’ names out of respect for the family.

Officials gather for a news conference in Philadelphia on Dec. 8, 2022.
Officials cautioned they may not be able to bring Joseph Zarelli’s killer to justice.

After his body was found, police put his picture on a poster and taped up copies all over town, trying to identify him and catch his killer. Generations of police officers across six decades have taken on the case.

They received permission to exhume his body for DNA in 1998 and again in 2019. The latest round gave police their answer. The test results were uploaded to DNA databases, allowing genealogists to make a match on the maternal side.

Authorities then got a court order for records of children born to the woman they suspected was Joseph’s mother between 1944 and 1956, and found Joseph’s birth certificate, which also listed the name of his father.

His remains rest at Ivy Hill Cemetary with a headstone identifying him as “America’s Unknown Child” — but will soon be rectified to add the boy’s name — Joseph August Zarelli.

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With Post wires.